A poem about ancestry and the distances between us, inspired by Tony Walsh
I never really thought about my own Irish ancestry, growing up in Manchester. You didn’t really have to. It was everywhere; from the surnames in the register at school to the voices in the pubs I worked in whilst at college, I never thought of it as separate in anyway from the bricks and mortar of the city; it was a natural part of Manchester. Your name is something you see on the front of exercise books in your own hand, something written endless times but rarely studied. I didn’t recognise it as Irish until much later.
My granddad on my Dad’s side was a distant figure, and it was only when he died that my Dad really talked about him and about his family background. His story is patchy, shadowy, reserved for the hazy end of nights in the pub, before the lights come on and you’re asked to leave. A kind of half-remembered song. Mt granddad was a soldier, saw action in WW2 and was never quite the same. His own father and his Irish grandfather belong to the smoky, cobbled streets of Manchester and Salford in the blackened mill towns of yesterday. Originally from Cork (we think), my great grandfather (or is it great-great grandfather?) came across to England to work on the Manchester Ship Canal, like so many others. And that’s about as much as I know. As a kid, I asked my dad but he was always sketchy, he talked about that generation of men in vague terms, as a kind of mythical race. He sketched a brief outline for me of tough men, digging canals, building roads and constructing the city.
I had the privilege a year or two ago of hearing poet Tony Walsh read his brilliant poem ‘Silver Ribbons’ at the People’s History Museum. What struck me about the piece, a touching account of the lives of ‘the navigators’, the men who dug the Manchester Ship Canal, was that he didn’t present them as this army of uniform men; he gave them individual voices, brought them to life. He talks of individuals, of “Kennedy, a muck-shifter, the strongest in the land,” before stinging us with lines such as “we all put in a shilling on the day he lost his hand.” He carves out this montage of men, it’s like flicking through a photograph album, briefly lighting these faces from the dark pages of history, a bittersweet account of “husbands, fathers, brothers,” and “broken men sent home again.”
The poem struck a chord with me, and I wanted to write something, but felt unqualified – unlike Tony, my own Irish ancestry is further back, lost. So, I decided to write something about that, about the distance generated when the second generation becomes third and fourth and the voices of ancestry become buried. I dedicate this poem to Tony Walsh and all those descended from ‘the navigators.’ There’s a recording of Tony’s poem, ‘Silver Ribbons’ online here. And if you haven’t experienced Tony Walsh‘s poetry, go see him.
Fourth Generation Verbs
The verb he used that afternoon in History,
after English, was ‘settled’.
It sat in my mouth in the past tense
all the way home, like soil.
Settled. Like sediment, in rivers
swollen by storms.
I conjured up faces of the grandparents
of grandparents I barely knew
and when I got home and asked you,
you talked of them vaguely
with rough handed verb phrases,
dug out, asphalted, built.
I knelt in the yard, felt the moss between the paving flags,
scratched at the dirt, at thin tufts of grass.
They wouldn’t have been here
to this new estate, built when I was small
on imported sand, on stony fields,
no bones in this topsoil.
At night, I dream of reaching down,
down beneath the flags,
stretching through worms
to the roots of dead trees, long overturned,
where maybe once they rested,
by rivers, fished, held hands,